UK wants hot tech grads to do spy work before building startups

The British government is considering a program that would see the most promising tech graduates spend some time working for the GCHQ signals intelligence agency, the U.K.’s equivalent to the NSA, before they move into the private sector.

As per a Thursday article in The Independent, confirmed to me by the Cabinet Office on Friday, the scheme would give the U.K. a rough equivalent to the system in Israel, where many tech entrepreneurs have come out of Unit 8200 of the Israel Defence Force. Unit 8200 is also a signals intelligence operation, and the cybersecurity firm Palo Alto Networks is a notable spinout.

According to the Cabinet Office sources quoted in the Independent piece, the idea would be to “capitalize on the expertise in GCHQ in terms of IT commercialization” by creating “a secure space where business can work with GCHQ and build an eco-system between the two.” (Side note: For more security-related U.K. civil-service-speak, check out the brilliant Sir Bonar Neville-Kingdom spoof account on Twitter.)

In short, part of the attraction lies in the idea of making money out of GCHQ’s in-house spy tech. In Israel, some Unit 8200 technologies have ended up being commercialized through startups created by former members. The Cabinet Office reckons the same could be done in the U.K., particularly around cybersecurity technologies — Cabinet Office boss Francis Maude visited Israel in November and, I am told, came away with lots of ideas around “digital and cyber”.

No doubt GCHQ would also benefit from the fresh ideas bubbling away in the brains of U.K. tech’s future stars, not to mention the potential for continued links in the future.

Of course, all Israelis have to go through the army anyway, so funnelling bright young tech minds through the local spook house is a relatively easy task there. GCHQ and the Cabinet Office may have a harder time of convincing promising British techies to spend time hanging around spooks, particularly with GCHQ’s mass surveillance programs – illegal under international law — having been exposed by the leaks of NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

While GCHQ has remained tight-lipped about its specific activities, since the Snowden leaks it has made a couple attempts at publicity. In November its new chief, Robert Hannigan, attacked U.S. tech firms for “benefiting” terrorists by extending encryption across their products and networks, and in December it released a tablet app for kids to, er, teach them the basics of encryption.